Monday, January 29, 2007

Emergent Properties, Abstraction, and Reductionism

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Categories : Nature of Science, Philosophy

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published: lundi 29 janvier 2007 0:07:37

I wrote a post a couple years ago on the topics in the title and I thought I'd repost it here in light of all the discussion on the topic.

In my last post, I talked about how the nature of science is to make abstractions. That is, when scientists try to make general theories about something they strip the phenomenon of all its "unnecessary" qualities and properties and only look at the relevant ones. For example, if I want to come up with a general theory of projectile motion, I don't have much need for information about what my projectile is made of or how much it costs or what color it is. Very often, I won't even care what shape my projectile is (I'll just assume it to be a point-mass). All I'll be concerned about is the initial velocity of the projectile, it's mass, the force of gravity at my experiment location, its initial angle of motion, and the height it falls. In all likelihood, I'll make a further abstraction of the motion into vertical and horizontal components of motion and look at those separately. And I haven't even begun to mention things like the legal properties of the projectile (maybe it's a hollow-point bullet and not legal in some places) or the biological properties of the projectile (maybe it's a human cannonball).

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